Al Mohler has written an interesting open letter to Karl Giberson, titled “On Darwin and Darwinism: A Letter to Professor Giberson“, which is a response to Giberson’s article at The Huffington Post, titled “How Darwin Sustains My Baptist Search for Truth“.
The disagreement between the two is ultimately about the compatibility of Darwinism and Christianity, but the specific context of Giberson’s complaint against Al Mohler pertains to what Giberson claims is a misrepresentation of Darwin by Mohler in a speech given at Ligonier Ministries:
The second great challenge was the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Coming at the midpoint of the 19th century, we need to be reminded that Darwin was not the first evolutionist. We need to be reminded that Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he was looking for or having no theory of how life emerged in all of its diversity, fecundity, and specialization. Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution. A theory that was based upon the fossil record and other inferences had already been able to take the hold of some in Western civilization. The dawn of the theory of evolution presents a direct challenge to the traditional interpretation of Genesis and, as we shall see, to much more.
Giberson’s complaint is this:
In this talk Mohler made false statements about Darwin. He apparently wanted to undermine evolution by suggesting that it was “invented” to prop up Darwin’s worldview, rather than developed to explain observations in the natural world. He said, “Darwin did not embark upon the Beagle having no preconceptions of what exactly he was looking for or having no theory of how life emerged in all of its diversity, fecundity, and specialization. Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution.”
Watch the video of the speech here or read the transcript here. The speech was actually more concerned with the age of the Earth than Charles Darwin. Nevertheless, Mohler’s response to Giberson in the open letter:
You cannot possibly disagree with any sentence of this paragraph, save one. Darwin was certainly not the first evolutionist. His grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, was a well-known evolutionist long before Charles Darwin set foot aboard the Beagle. One difficulty here, of course, is the word “evolution,” which was not even Charles Darwin’s preferred word. In any event, evolutionary ideas were already present within Victorian society in Britain, even if it would be left to Charles Darwin to develop the theory of natural selection. I do not deny the intellectual impact of Darwin’s own theory. Evolution is not often known as “Darwinism” by accident.
The one sentence central to your complaint is this: “Darwin left on his expedition to prove the theory of evolution.” Upon further reflection, I would accept that this statement appears to misrepresent to some degree Darwin’s intellectual shifts before and during his experience on the Beagle. At the same time, the intellectual context of Darwin’s times (and of his own family, in particular) leave no room to deny that some form of developmentalism had to be in the background of his own thinking, presumably consistent with his own acceptance of a natural theology and an argument from design. Long before Charles Darwin reached adulthood, his own grandfather had affirmed the “natural ascent” of all life. I am happy to correct any misrepresentation of Charles Darwin’s intellectual ambitions, but that sentence has no consequential bearing upon my larger argument or on my rejection of Darwinism.
It does seem like Giberson is being unduly harsh to Mohler, in taking that one particular and using it to claim that Mohler “does not seem to care about the truth and seems quite content to simply make stuff up when it serves his purpose.”
I think Mohler is right when he claims that Giberson is only interested in making Darwin palatable for Christians. And I think Mohler is right when he claims that Giberson slurs over the true religious historicity of Darwin and paints a rather misleading picture:
And if a misrepresentation of Charles Darwin is the central issue, I must insist that it is you who offers the truly dangerous misrepresentation. In Saving Darwin, you attempt at great lengths to present Charles Darwin as a rather conventional and orthodox Christian, prior to his later loss of faith. You state that he was “born to a well-to-do British family who, despite having some unorthodox characters listed in the family Bible, raised him in the Anglican Church, educated him in an Anglican school, and put him on the train to Edinburgh to study medicine.”
This hardly seems adequate or straightforward. The “some unorthodox characters listed in the family Bible” included both his father and his paternal grandfather. His mother’s family was Unitarian in belief, rejecting the deity of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity. Even as Charles Darwin was nominally involved in the Anglican Church, largely through the influence of his sister and brother-in-law after the death of his mother, his involvement and exposure appears to me largely incidental to his life. He later married a woman of Unitarian convictions as well.
It is certainly true that Charles Darwin was directed to become an Anglican clergyman by his unbelieving father, but this was a social tradition for second sons of the developing British middle class. As Randal Keynes, Darwin’s own great-great-grandson explains, “His idea was to become a country parson, caring for his parishioners but living for natural history.” And, as the authoritative biographers Adrian Desmond and James Moore recount, “Dr. Darwin, a confirmed freethinker, was sensible and shrewd. He had only to look around him, recall the vicarages he had visited, [and] ponder the country parsons he entertained at home. One did not have to be a believer to see that an aimless son with a penchant for field sports would fit in nicely. Was the church not a haven for dullards and dawdlers, the last resort of spendthrifts? What calling but the highest for those whose sense of calling was nil?”
But even more telling is Giberson’s jettisoning of traditional Christian doctrine:
Of far greater concern is your tendency to appear to agree with some of Darwin’s complaints against biblical Christianity. You claim that he “boarded the Beagle with his childhood Christian faith intact,” but then add, “although he had begun to wonder about the historicity of the more fanciful Old Testament stories, like the Tower of Babel.” This is insignificant? Are we to understand that you, too, see that biblical account as “fanciful”? You explain that Darwin, “like most thoughtful believers,” began to distance himself from the doctrine of hell — a doctrine you describe as “a secondary doctrine that even many conservatives reject.”
If your intention in Saving Darwin is to show “how to be a Christian and believe in evolution,” what you have actually succeeded in doing is to show how much doctrine Christianity has to surrender in order to accommodate itself to evolution. In doing this, you and your colleagues at BioLogos are actually doing us all a great service. You are showing us what the acceptance of evolution actually costs, in terms of theological concessions.